Every day I try not to drown.
Every day I try to breathe.
Every day I try to get out of bed and go on.
Everything is a tainted gray. Sometimes the gray is a very dark shade, and sometimes it’s light with pale colors around the edges. Life happens around me while I stand still. It moves abruptly, not afraid to wake me up. But I don’t wake up.
My brother storms into my room one day.
“Come with me to Ahara,” he says. “You might really like it. It’s a change of scenery, you know.”
I don’t reply at first, but he keeps staring at me, waiting patiently. I know he could wait like this forever.
“It’s your honeymoon. I can’t ruin your honeymoon.”
“Who says you’ll ruin it? Lela, come. Try. For mum…you’re breaking her heart every day.” His voice is a loud whisper in my ear.
I finally yield. We reach Ahara after twenty-six hours combined with what seems like two-hundred photos taken by Noah. Ahara is in Eastern Africa, and all I know is that it’s very small.
It’s true. I get out of the plane and see nothing but one gray building and very few people walking around. The humidity and thickness of the air are pushing my eyelids down even though I slept through most of the plane ride.
“We’re here!” Eve says gleefully. She takes off her beach hat, runs her hand through her brown, cropped hair, and starts spinning around, sunrays bouncing off her pale skin.
Noah joins too. He holds her hand and spins her around. I just stand, awkward, fumbling with my cell phone. There are, like, ten people in the airport. That’s why I don’t pretend I’m not with Noah and Eve.
By the time we reach the cabs lined on the side of the main road, we find ourselves drenched in sweat. A driver helps us put our luggage in the trunk, except for Eve’s backpack that Noah is always carrying.
Malisorg, Ahara’s capital, unfolds in front of me. The more I see of it, the more I stop secretly cursing their choice of honeymoon destination. First, there’s nothing on either sides of the road but sand. Then grass starts to appear, and that’s when Bondoka river comes into view.
“It is the river that reflects the sun’s light,” the driver says.
We go on a bridge and cross the river, and on the other side, the city comes to life: Plants and flower beds everywhere, only a few roads intersecting them; stands, where people are weaving and making crowns out of jasmine, their kids running around them; houses made of wood, with carvings of different shapes of flowers.
“What? Do they worship flowers
here?” I mutter.
Noah doesn’t let go of the camera, not once.
“What do you think, Lela?” he asks.
“It’s nice.” And beautiful.
“Just nice?” Eve protests.
“Very nice,” I say.
I want to say more. I want to thank them for taking the trouble and bringing me with them on their honeymoon, but sometimes… most of the times, I feel there’s this lump in my throat that I can’t get any words around.
I hear Eve and Noah laughing so hard, and when I look, I see that half her body is out the window, and he’s taking pictures of her.
They both keep laughing, and I smile.
As we go uphill, I begin to see ordinary houses made of brick, and a lot of them have flower prints on the doors or the walls or around the windows.
At the hotel, I can’t help but notice a very big flower that takes up the entire ceiling. The strangest flower I’ve ever seen.
“What? Do they worship flowers here?” I mutter.
“No, and this is not just any flower,” the cab driver says as he puts our last bag in front of us. “This is the flower that saved our country from dying of hunger three hundred years ago.”
“How so?” Eve asks.
“There was a doubt. No water, no plants, nothing.”
“Drought, you mean.” Noah corrects him.
“Yes, that’s what I said,” the driver says. “We couldn’t grow any crops, and people were beginning to die from hunger. Then, one day, the king’s son found this flower out of nowhere, and a week later, it started to rain, and it’s like plants followed it and started to grow.”
“Wow,” Eve says, wide-eyed.
“But it stays for one year then it dies. Until it dies, it brings happiness to the one who finds it.”
“But you let your happiness depend on a flower?” Eve objects.
“Our happiness depends on hope,” he says as he leaves.
I look at the ceiling as I follow Noah and Eve up the spiral stairs. It’s like a purple snapdragon with white dots. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“Are you okay?” I hear Noah ask Eve, holding her arm.
“I’m fine,” she whispers. “I just got a little bit dizzy. Maybe from the stairs.”
“If you need anything, we’re right here next to you,”
Noah says to me when we reach the two rooms he booked.
“Okay,” I nod.
“We’ll just rest for a while.” He looks at Eve.
“Then, we can explore the city,” she adds, smiling. For hours, I do nothing but lie on my bed and answer a call from mum and dad. I have to tell them I’m fine more than twenty times. Eventually, just when I’m dozing off, I hear knocks on the door.
“Lela! We’re sorry we’re late,” I hear Eve saying even before I completely open the door. “Why aren’t you changed yet?” she asks when she sees me.
“Come on, take a shower, change your clothes… we’re going out!”
“Umm… I’ll take time. Maybe you two can go.” I try to look as sleepy as I felt a minute ago.
“I knew you’d say that,” says Noah.
I surrender after Eve says they won’t go anywhere without me. I take a quick shower then put on a pair of jeans and the first t-shirt my eyes fall upon. I tie my black hair into a ponytail, then I knock on their door to let them know I’m ready.
Noah and Eve plan for our day tomorrow and the day after tomorrow as we walk to the flea market. I remain silent, thinking how dull they must think I am, how dull I think I am.
Two minutes later, we find ourselves in front of what looks like a thousand stands, piled with clothes, accessories, food, anything we can think of. The music is a wave of drumming, mixed with varying instruments that mostly sound like violins, and there’s a male’s voice blending in. He hums with the music, his voice sharp and vibrating adds beauty to the music. Lanterns throw their yellow lights on the Aharans, making their bronze skins shimmer—most Aharans have bronze skin and black, wavy hair.
Noah goes to check out some book stands, and I stay with Eve while she tries on some pretty accessories. Some colorful, satin robes laid out on a nearby stand catch my attention. I look at them, imagining myself in one of them.
The moment we see Noah again, Eve asks him to take a picture of us. He takes out the camera, which, I notice, is only in his hand when Eve is around.
“SMILE.” I’m certain he says it to me, because Eve is always smiling. For a moment, I feel her grip tighten on my shoulder as if she’s leaning on me for support.
He gives me the camera to look at the photo. Eve is lighting it up with her laugh. How can a person who’s so filled with life be filled with death at the same time?
“I hope you had fun today,” Noah says when we reach our rooms.
“Yeah. It was nice,” I say.
“I bought you something.” Eve says and opens the biggest bag she’s holding.
Noah winks at me and goes inside.
Eve takes out a long, satin, v-necked robe. It’s white and draped on one side, and it has gold buttons and bell sleeves made of lace. It’s just like the robes I saw earlier.
I open my mouth to try and say something.
“I thought you’d like the white color the most. It’s an aftab,” she says.
“It’s their traditional robe. They wear it in celebrations and festivals.” She brings it closer to me. “It’ll look terrific on you.”
“I don’t know what to say.” It’s true.
“Don’t say anything.”
In bed, I playback the whole day… I’m looking at the accessories in the market… I’m Eve. Being Eve is making me happy… I’m finally happy… But there’s something hurting me… my heart hurts and my head… I wake up to rapid knocks on my door.
I’m me again.
I open the door with one of my eyes shut. Noah’s standing barefoot at my door with his black hair in messy spikes.
“What is it?” I know what it is, but I ask anyway; maybe it’s something else.
“Eve.” He points to their room.
It’s not something else.
I follow Noah, and as I walk into the room, I see Eve lying on the bed, her face even paler than it usually is.
“She’s very tired today, Lela.” His voice breaks at the end of every word.
She has only a shadow of a smile on her lips, and there are beads of sweat over her eyebrows. As I go closer, I see a bin filled with vomit beside her bed.
“I don’t know what makes me worse anymore, the chemotherapy or the cancer.” A trembling snort comes out of her. I guess she’s trying to laugh. I can see that she’s trying to look put together, but her eyes give her away. You can’t force your eyes to smile even if you can force your lips. Her eyes are in pain. I sit beside her and look at Noah who’s folding a towel and putting it in a bowl of water.
“I…I don’t know what happened. I always make sure to… to give her the medication on time,” he looks at her backpack. “I…”
I’m on the verge of crying.
“I’m sorry,” I manage to say.
“Don’t be.” Eve touches my hand. “It happens… we just didn’t expect… didn’t want me to get tired in our honeymoon. But I’ll be fine, you’ll see.” She turns her head, but before her eyes meet Noah’s, she bends down and vomits in the bin.
I hold her shoulder and look at Noah, and I can feel both of our hearts breaking, but mine is breaking for both of them.
I hurry to their bathroom and sob, trying to make it as soundless as I can. Then, I go out to the balcony, and after a few minutes, Noah follows me.
“She’s resting… trying to sleep it off.”
“She doesn’t deserve it.” I work the words around the knot in my throat. “A person like Eve doesn’t deserve this.”
“I told myself that she’ll be fine on the honeymoon. She’s been doing fine for a while now, you know.”
“She doesn’t deserve it.” It’s all I can think of. “Someone like me deserves this—sometimes I want to die anyway—Eve doesn’t. But I… I’ve always been this person who’s shut in her room and doesn’t even know how to communicate with anyone, and believe me, I tried. I tried a lot to be more like you, like every normal person out there and be less like me, but it doesn’t work… it doesn’t.” The knot is suffocating me. “But Eve… Eve deserves life. She’s full of it. If I could take her cancer and put it inside of me, I would, but if it was possible, I wouldn’t even have enough courage to do it.”
“Don’t say this, Lela. Don’t talk about yourself like that.” His voice is low and broken. “We love you. Everyone loves you so much. We don’t want you to try to be someone else. We love you just the way you are.”
He holds my wrist tightly like he used to when I was little, when he’d get scared that I might trip and fall.
“And I don’t know why you love me. I don’t love myself.”
I go hold Eve’s hand, she replies with a weak squeeze. Then I go to my room and cry. It’s what I do best.
“I was wrong,” Eve says when I come at night to check up on her.
“About the flower… the driver was right; their happiness depends on hope not on the flower. Thinking that a simple flower can make you happy means you have hope.”
Next morning, when I knock at their door, Eve is the one who opens it. She’s a little bit better, and no matter what we say, it seems like we can’t convince her to stay indoors.
“I’m going to rest the whole day, but we have to go out at night. Don’t you remember?” she looks at Noah.
“The guy at the market told us that tonight is the night of Crescendo.” She looks back at me.
“Don’t you remember, Lela?” Despite how ill they look, her eyes are wide with excitement.
“If you’re not going, I’ll go without you,” she teases.
“Fine,” Noah gives in at last. “But—”
“Don’t worry. If I feel tired, we’ll come back,” she says.
We head to a place called Badden. That’s where everyone gathers on the night of Crescendo, according to our hotel receptionist. Badden is a circular, blue building near the riverbank, and the whole area around it is named after it. As the light seeps out of the sky, Badden turns into a sea of people that keeps rising. Most of the women are wearing aftabs. I’m wearing the one Eve got me.
A group of men set up percussion instruments and start to form a quick rhythm with their hands.
“How do we pray for rain like them?” Eve asks. A man next to Eve looks at us, and apparently registers that we’re tourists. “Everyone here prays in their own way,” he points at different groups of people. “The important thing is that you pray.”
“But, do you really need to do this? I mean you have water and crops…” Noah says.
“It’s a tradition, and also for so many years, people have been passing on to their children what happened during the years of the drought. We don’t want it to happen again, so we keep praying.”
“And I don’t know why you love
me. I don’t love myself.”
“God, please grant this country rain,” Eve raises her hands to the sky.
Noah follows. I do, too.
It’s funny how we have other things to worry about, yet we’re standing here, praying for other people. It feels good.
An hour later, people start shuffling around us. A few men yell some words in Aharan Afrikaans, and the drumming stops.
“It’s lanterns time. Head to Badden.” The man standing beside Eve points to the blue building.
“I’ll go. You stay here.” Noah starts carving his way to Badden.
Eve stands silently for a while, looking at the sky, which is plain black.
“I’d hate looking at the sky, if I didn’t know there were stars up there,” she says without taking her eyes off the sky.
Just when we think there are no stars in the sky, the clouds clear, and they begin to appear, as if to prove us wrong.
“There’s one,” I point at a small star.
“There’s another one,” she points at a bigger one.
“I got the lanterns.” We turn around to see Noah holding three small lanterns made of white cloth. The same man explains what to do. Each one of us writes down a wish and puts it in a special pocket in the cloth. Then, we light the candle and hold the lantern up to the sky, letting it fly away. Half an hour later, the sky is glowing with hundreds of wishes flying through the air.
The next morning, I wake up early and go down to walk among the flowers while Noah and Eve are still asleep. One flower sticks out.
It’s nestled among the yellow flowers, but it doesn’t look like them.
I turn around. Eve and Noah are standing in the balcony, Eve waving at me. She’s alive. She’s fine. My wish yesterday didn’t only set the sky on fire but also came true. I hope it keeps coming true every day.
Now I realize that maybe the stars are hope and life is the sky. Without hope, we’d hate life.
I wave back at Eve and Noah then bend down beside the strange flower.
It’s a purple snapdragon with white dots.
Image courtesy of the Coloring a Gray City intiative.